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Operational art.

In Pursuit of Military Excellence: The Evolution of Operational Theory by Shimon Naveh London: Frank Cass, 1997. 396 pp. $59.50 [ISBN 0-71-46472-76]

A most thought provoking study of the operation level of conflict, In Pursuit of Military Excellence: The Evolution of Operational Theory by Shimon Naveh, deserves urgent consideration in these times of strategic and operational uncertainty. Using a sophisticated understanding of general systems theory, Naveh describes flaws in the 19th century understanding of war and the development in the 20th century of a military theory based on an appreciation for the complexity and sophistication of modern armies and states. He examines German Blitzkrieg in detail to show its very real and important limitations to the operational level of war. Naveh then turns to the development of Soviet operational art in the 1920s and 1930s and the elaboration of that conception in the postwar years. Finally, he examines the development of American AirLand Battle doctrine, epitomized in the 1982 and 1986 editions of Army Field Manual 100-5, Operations.

Throughout these careful historical expositions, Naveh shows that operational art is more than simply the conduct of operations, and that the operational level of war is more than the tier between tactics and strategy. He argues convincingly that operational art is a theory with a content and an objective. In the past, he contends, the conduct of operations focused on massing the largest possible force against the main enemy army and destroying it, although here he puts too much blame on Carl von Clausewitz for a trend that owed more to the development of railways, mobilization plans, and myopic general staffs. Naveh is correct in pointing out that operational art has turned away from its original simple prescription for victory. As developed by the Soviets and partially adopted by the Americans, operational art proceeded from an understanding that the enemy force was a complex system in which many independent parts work together to produce a combat power far in excess of the sums of their individual strengths. That observation led to the further conviction that destruction of the enemy force could best be achieved not by attacking it head on, strength-to-strength, but by striking at the critical points of linkage between the parts, subjecting the entire body to a shock that would disrupt its synergistic operation, break it into parts, and render each part vulnerable to rapid and decisive demolition.

The concept of operational shock delivered simultaneously throughout the enemy force was the basis of Soviet operational thinking in the interwar years. The Soviets imagined that long-range attack aviation would strike deep into the enemy rear, destroying rail lines and hubs, blowing up bridges, and attacking concentrations of reserves not so much to demolish them as to pin them down and keep reinforcements from aggregating to reestablish coherent defensive positions once the initial forward defensive belt was breached. At the same time, powerful armored forces supported by tactical attack aviation and high-density artillery concentrations would blow holes through forward defenses, facilitating multiple breakthroughs. Finally, exploitation forces, tactically and operationally echeloned to enable continuous pursuit of the defenders, would drive into the enemy rear, engage the reserves pinned down by long-range aviation, and overrun the entire defending force before it could recover its equilibrium and respond coherently. This is almost precisely the sequence of events that occurred in June and July 1944, when in a single operation the Red army completely destroyed German Army Group Center, advancing more than 200 kilometers in three weeks. A similar sequence describes the near destruction of the Iraqi army in 1991.

Since the Persian Gulf War, American military thinkers and practitioners have become ever more convinced that the enemy is a system that can be disassembled and destroyed piecemeal, and considerable reliance on that belief underlies current defense posture and planning. Yet there is a fundamental divergence between current conceptions of how to attack an enemy system and those that worked so well in 1944 and 1991, and it is not clear that recent notions are more sound.

The main advocates for attacking an enemy system are airpower enthusiasts, and the tools they imagine are airpower tools, whether delivered by Air Force fighter-bombers or Navy Tomahawk land attack missiles. The most articulate spokesmen of this viewpoint follow Naveh in rejecting Clausewitz utterly. They argue that the days when it was necessary to attack the enemy army to win are over and that it is now possible to disaggregate the enemy system by precision strikes on a limited set of critical targets (erroneously identified as centers of gravity). Thus a war can be won quickly, cheaply, nearly bloodlessly, and virtually without ground forces.

This view, however, misses the point of operational art and misreads the history of the campaigns that best exemplify it. The precision strikes of the Gulf War, to say nothing of the imprecise attacks of the Red air force in 1944, did not destroy the enemy forces or even render them helpless by killing critical nodes. Instead, they inflicted severe operational shock that temporarily destabilized and disaggregated enemy capabilities. The ground attack against that disoriented force was then able to kill it quickly and relatively painlessly.

The shock induced by an air only offensive is largely dissipated without the synergy of simultaneous attacks. Unless the political leadership succumbs to the first assault or loses its nerve during a more prolonged bombardment, as Slobodan Milosevic did, the only way a purely air strike can follow up is by seeking to annihilate enemy forces entirely through attrition. The key point of operational art, however, is that the outcome has little to do with the war of numbers, which puts such thinking at odds with current theories relying on airpower and long-range standoff weapons. Many believe that American technological superiority will limit attrition in future conflicts to the enemy, but history offers little support for that judgment. Countermeasures will be developed. Then even the most advanced weapons can be degraded and defeated.

Attrition is a dangerous ally. Yet if the United States continues as it began in the 1980s with the serious study of operational art and focuses on developing concepts that combine operational shock with exploitation of ensuing vulnerabilities, then an enemy's ability to frustrate U.S. forces through operational defects or enemy countermeasures will be greatly reduced. Technological excellence is not incompatible with theoretical excellence. Indeed, one without the other is unlikely to succeed.

Frederick W. Kagan is an assistant professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy.
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Author:Kagan, Frederick W.
Publication:Joint Force Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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